Dan Israel straddles past and future

Steven Cohen

Growing up as a musical Jewish kid with strong family ties to the Iron Range, a young Dan Israel considered Bob Dylan a kindred creative spirit. Since then, the singer-songwriter has forged a distinguished, two-decade, 12-album career, which has reached a peak with the coinciding releases of both a new record, Live On, and a double-LP career retrospective, Danthology.

On a stormy spring afternoon, City Pages and Israel gather at a commons area in his hometown of St. Louis Park. Years of his circuitous creative process, recent health concerns, and long sessions at the Minnesota State Legislature — he works in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes — have been both rewarding and exhausting.

"Since 1996, I've put out a CD every year or every other year until now," reflects Israel. "I was just going at it, going at it, going at it, and I wore myself down. I was trying to do too much — having kids, working at the Legislature, and trying to play gigs every night, and my health broke down, both mentally and physically."

After surviving some pretty serious stomach issues over the past few years, Israel is ready to make one big creative push before he lets himself take a well-earned break. While Live On continues the genuine, acoustic-driven material that Israel has crafted for years now, when it's viewed alongside his anthology, you can see how his songwriting, vocals, and guitar work have progressed over the past 22 years.

Israel's first foray into songwriting was laden with the typical bad poetry that teenage years bring for anyone not named Rimbaud. But after playing in various cover bands during his high school years in St. Louis Park, Israel headed to Evanston, Illinois, to attend Northwestern University. After a few years there, Israel switched from a film major to focus on music, and formed One Town Horse with a friend from college. That band broke up post-graduation, and Israel left the Midwest to throw everything he had into cracking the music scene in Austin, Texas, with a new band, Potter's Field.

After releasing a CD, touring extensively — even opening for Spoon in their early days — and Israel being named one of Austin's best songwriters, the band broke up and he headed home, where he would soon meet his wife, as well as a creative musical family with whom he still works to this day. Israel formed a new band, Dan Israel and the Cultivators, and created material that he proudly revisits in the Kickstarter-funded Danthology retrospective, his first-ever release on vinyl.

"Inevitably, you cringe at lyrics you feel you could have written better, or notes I wish I would have hit better," Israel says reflectively. "Vinyl brings out everything even more, there's no hiding. So it's warts and all. What's really rewarding, though, is hearing the development over time, and also hearing that I didn't totally suck back then. Those songs evoke memories of a different part of my life, and take me back."

It's no accident that Israel's new album is titled Live On, as these emotional, vulnerable songs are all inspired by loss and struggle, something the Twin Cities music scene has seen more than its fair share of as of late. The plaintive, countrified last song on the album, "Mile After Mile," is written for Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap, and the album is dedicated to Leah Rule, the beloved former Turf Club manager who died this past December. Her artwork graces its cover, as well. Israel recorded the album in a productive and therapeutic weekend last summer up north at Sparta Sound studio with collaborator Rich Mattson.

"Getting out of the city was a big de-stresser, I felt liberated being out in the country," he says wistfully. "It was just a really spiritual experience recording up there — I would say it was transformative as far as me growing more in tune with music and my friends. Who the hell works a demanding day job, has two kids, and puts out 12 albums in 15 years? Crazy people. I'm giving this my all right now. But there's going to be a sabbatical sometime soon. I'm not retiring, but I've hit my limit."

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